AISLE SAY New York/New Jersey


Book by John Robinette
Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Based on the film writtten by
Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark
and In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash
by Jean Shepherd
Directed by John Rando
Starring Dan Lauria
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre
Official Website

Book by Thomas Meehan
Music by Charles Strouse
Lyrics by Martin Charnin
Based on the Comic Strip by Harold Gray
Directed by James Lapine
Starring Lilla Crawford, Anthony Warlow
and Kate Finneran
Palace Theatre
Official Website

Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Mammerstein II
Book by Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse
Starring Elena Shaddow and Ben Davis
Directed and Choreographed by
James Brennan
Paper Mill Playhouse

Reviewed by David Spencer

After three previous regional productions (including one with a since-jettisoned score by another writer), the musical version of the 1983 holiday film favorite A Christmas Story has arrived at the Lunt-Fotanne Theatre and it is, after  fashion, very much worth having waited for. Which is to say, fans of the film will not be disappointed; and those who don’t know the film, or remember it only vaguely (I fit into the third category, for the moment) won’t feel left out or wishing they’d been baptized by the film experience first.

                        This is more of an accomplishment than it might seem, because while the story certainly features characters who want things that serve as strong enough objectives to carry them through an evening of musical theatre, A Christmas Story is, at core, an episodic story about a family; and those I Want objectives are but a literary adhesive that holds the anecdotes together. So there’s a fine balance between dramatic arc structure and a nostalgic revue (with continuing characters) that dare not out itself as such, about middle-America family life circa 1940 at Christmastime. What further distinguishes the enterprise is that it’s not the usual sentimental stuff; A Christmas Story is drawn from the somewhat fictionalized recollections of the late columnist and radio raconteur Jean Shepherd, and they are wry memories about human foibles and absurdity—that in the end just happen to strike a sentimental chord because they’re so affectionate.

                        The accomplishment is more impressive still because the creative team have wisely decided not to mess with the film’s basic structure or framing gimmick—a running commentary by Jean Shepherd himself. In the film it was a voice-over. But as Mr. Shepherd is no longer with us, and as this is, after all, live theatre, he is here a narrator-in-the-flesh and in the body of burly Dan Lauria. And while Lauria doesn’t imitate Shepherd’s voice or rhythms, his physicality and sensibility create a spot-on evocation of his spirit.

                        I’d rather not detail the famous bits or even identify the wants—if you know the film, they won’t be news; if you don’t, their discovery is part of the fun—but I’ll tell you that the casting of the family is delightful and accurate from Johnny Rabe as Ralphie (Shepherd’s childhood surrogate) to his parents: Mother (Erin Dilly) and The Old Man (John Bolton). And there’s a very agreeable supporting cast too—all hitting their comedy marks expertly under the guidance of the show’s new director, John Rando, who tends to be a good man where getting a laugh is concerned.

                        I’ve alluded to the success of John Robinette’s libretto above. As to the score by the still-relatively-young team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul; it doesn’t burst at the seams to explore new devices, as their later score for Dogfight (seen earlier this season at Second Stage) did; then again, this is a very specific entertainment with a very specific agenda, and what they have delivered is a credible enough Christmas score to fondly familiar at holiday time…and one with enough solid matter for its cast to sink their teeth into. Not only can’t you ask for more than that…but any songwriters with this gig would probably have gotten fired trying to delver more. This is not a show where you try to aim the BB gun above the material, but aim straight at its center.

                        Any other strategy and you’d only shoot your eye out, kid.


For the most part, fans of the Martin Charnin/Thomas Meehan/Charles Strouse musical Annie seem to be in good spirits about the production. It tells the story cleanly, it doesn't seek to do anything revolutionary or game-changingly revisionist (despite having the often trail-blazing James Lapine as director)—and in any sense that matters, it's the classic show served straight up.

                        Side by side with this, however, is the fact that while Lapine hasn't hurt the show, he hasn't directed with the fullest possible grasp of how its elements work best. Here are two representative examples: (1) While on paper the casting of  Kate Finneran as Miss Hannigan—the slatternly, mean-spirited operator of the girls’ orphanage from which Annie escapes—seems a fantastic idea, Ms. Finneran being one of those delicious natural comediennes who can bring the house down with an impeccably timed raised eyebrow, in three dimensions she falls far short of fantastic. In part because—and it sees odd to say this of Miss Hannigan—she mugs too much; to borrow the famous line Lynne Fontanne offered to her husband Alfred Lunt when he lost the audience response to a joke, she spends way too much time asking for the laugh instead of asking for the cup of tea (i.e. what her character wants). But that’s a mutually shared indulgence between actress and director and somewhat adjustable if they choose to solve it. Here’s the bigger problem and it’s not adjustable: Kate Finneran is leggy-pretty. Even in floppy, comic clothing made to make her look like a man-repellant, too self-delusional to know she’s not seductive when she turns on “the charm”; even though she plays the lush card for all it’s worth; it’s apparent that Ms. Finneran is a dish who can in real life have any man she wants with the crook of her little finger. And even though she’s playing against her natural persona, its aspect of vulnerability and warmth fights her back such that you don’t entirely believe she really wants to be that mean to the kids. It’s a little like watching an adult avatar in a role-playing game, in which the kids play along with the rules because it’s fun. This discrepancy is not overt, despite the broad strokes of the role and its requirements; it’s rather a subtle disconnection, and it’s why Ms. Finneran entertains like a great pro…but never knocks it out of the park. (2) This revival comes with some newly conceived arrangements and orchestrations, which are expert, pleasant and attractive…but mostly unnecessary. At a guess I'd say the mandate was probably to remove artifacts of 70s pop music that had occasionally, anachronistically (for a show set during the Great Depression), colored the original accompaniments. But those fills and riffs also contributed to the flavor and character of the score, and little with the same kind of iconic signature has taken their place…so the adjustment is one of those successful operations that doesn't actually help the patient.

                        But as I say, the show itself seems to have a Teflon resistance to smaller missteps so long as it’s allowed to be what it is; and it has been. Lilla Crawford is an adorable and credible enough Annie to win over all but the most cynical; and Australian actor Anthony Warlow is so tough-guy/soft-heart engaging, and with such a magnificent, easy baritone, that he could win over a cynic too.

                        And that’s the report from Orphan Central.


There's a very decent revival of The Sound of Music at the Paper Mill Playhouse. James Brennan's staging represents the usual utility work done by that cadre of journeyman directors who make a credible living getting standard musical theatre repertoire on its feet in regional venues—unspectacularly but with the proficiency of old hands at the game of doing the shows accurately and otherwise staying out of their way. However, he has cast his two leads brilliantly, and even a little adventurously. Not that they're radical, experimental departures from basic intention, but in keeping with contemporary technique, they bring a good deal of close-up (yet stage-friendly) realism to the table. Elena Shaddow's Maria is so moment-to-moment specific, and palpably, vulnerably connected, that she seems to make the  audience hear those terribly familiar lyrics for the first time, as evidenced by their fresh reactions to moments of humor and revelation—or (not so) simple word play. And Ben Davis's Captain Von Trapp has an easy, confident maleness and sexuality of the kind that used to mark oldschool leading men, but delivered with newschool nuance. Easy also describes the vocal technique of both; these are truly great musical theatre voices, and in a different era their distinct signatures would have made them stars by now. (Full disclosure: I've worked with Elena Shaddow but that doesn't make me biased—only more of a connoisseur.) In the supporting role of the Captain's obviously temporary fiancé, Donna English is the quintessence of entitled, upper crust beauty. And Suzanne Ishee—a longtime theatre veteran who is welcome news to me—achieves the balance between sternness and compassion perfectly as the Mother Abbess, and gives “Climb Every Mountain” with a fine, clear, ringing soprano delivery.

                        There is, however, a bit of a false note struck—not cripplingly or outrageously but noticeably—by Edward Hibbert as the Captain's best friend, impresario Max Detweiler; Max should be avuncular, a benign social parasite and maybe a bit of a (harmlessly) dirty old man into the bargain. But Mr. Hibbert's specialty is portraying older middle-aged characters who are bitchy and effete (usually entertainingly); and implicitly or explicitly homosexual, which is an inextricable part of his stage persona. And in the context of The Sound of Music—and indeed of the Rodgers and Hammerstein sensibility—it stretches credulity for the Nazi high command to let that conspicuously flamboyant a fellow maintain his position as Cultural Minister, much less promote him from third to first grade, even overseeing his native Austria. (As a point of academic history, this does not, I’m certain, give most of the audience even a minute’s worth of worry [historically, in fact, there were closeted homosexuals in the Nazi high command]; but the audience doesn’t warm to Max as the Von Trapp kids do, either—which one must to find the lightness in his too-accommodating political philosophy—and that’s because the casting of Mr. Hibbert lacks authenticity and feels at odds with the universe.)

                        But all things considered—including the children playing the Von Trappettes, who are able and charming—that’s a minor bump in an otherwise  effective and moving production.

                        (I cannot resist adding this. When I talk about the current Paper Mill production showcasing a certain amount of realism in its acting, I’m really talking about a relatively new phenomenon in the staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals—one that only goes back as far as the 1990s—and that’s behavioral verisimilitude and age-appropriate casting. The first time I saw The Sound of Music live was in a Westbury Music Fair production, in the round of course, and directed by Theatreworks/USA co-founder Jay Harnick. The year was 1982. It starred opera singer Roberta Peters, then 52, as Maria—too old for the role by at least 25 years—and Theodore Bikel, then 58, recreating his original Broadway cast role of Captain Von Trapp—not too old against Ms. Peters but at the very edge of accommodation. But Ms. Peters was pretty enough to look younger and sang the role well, so audiences made the allowance. Astonishingly, even then, it was not uncommon for audiences to do so. And critic Alvin Klein wrote this telling—and in retrospect unintentionally, touchingly naive—passage in his largely favorable New York Times review: “Don't expect chemistry between the stars, but then we didn't get that 23 years ago between Mr. Bikel and Mary Martin. Any actor of presence can play the captain while thinking of better things. Mr. Bikel does not appear otherwise engaged to any alarming degree, and his singing of ‘Edelweiss’ is heartfelt and comforting. With Miss Peters around, one does expect extended notes, high notes, smoothly spun notes—and a certain amount of vocal flourish. One is not disappointed…It's a pleasure to report that her soprano is in excellent vocal estate and that she's ever attractive. Her minimal acting is efficient and pleasant, if reserved.”)

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